Tuesday, Sharon left for Mexico City in advance of Mark’s arrival there the next day. Leonidas Bertonetti, her South America expert, and Earl Wallace, the deputy secretary of state, had flown in the day before. The flight, itself, was relatively uneventful, but once the plane landed at AICM, it had to wait on the tarmac and the line to get through customs seemed endless. Sharon debated showing her Belgian passport – as a dual citizen, she held passports from both Belgium and the U.S., but then noticed that a German couple ahead of her didn’t get through any faster. Re-setting the sim card in her phone, she called the service for a private car and driver.
She had brought a minimum of luggage as it was, and as soon as she cleared, she hurried to the street. Fortunately, her driver was waiting, but getting to the American Embassy, where the President would be staying along with his staff, took forever through the packed Mexico City traffic. By the time she got to the Embassy, she had only a few moments to leave her bags at the front desk and hurry to a meeting with Bertonetti, Wallace, the American Ambassador Mariana Salas and Raul Montoya, the Mexican foreign minister.
Fortunately, all appeared to be in order for the U.S. President’s arrival the next day, except for one small glitch.
“Our president wants to use his own translators,” Senor Montoya said hesitantly.
“Why?” Wallace asked. He was an average-sized man with graying hair and the beginnings of a belly under his custom tailored dark suit. “We were told translators wouldn’t even be an issue since President Diego speaks perfect English.”
Montoya shrugged, obviously uncomfortable. “It was his idea initially to have the talks in English, but he changed his mind.”
“It’s not a problem,” said Sharon. She glanced at Wallace. “Bertonetti and I can fill in on our side.”
There were quiet looks all around, with everyone sensing what the real issue was and no one willing to say so flat out. Or rather, Sharon and Wallace waited until Montoya – a small man with a full head of salt and pepper hair and glasses – left the building.
“Diego’s going to be difficult,” Wallace announced as he watched out the window as Montoya got into his car.
“That’s why I prefer dealing with Montoya,” Salas replied. She had a full figure and wore her dark hair straight and shoulder length, carrying about her an air of understated elegance.
“Well, our president will already be giving his tarmac speech in Spanish,” said Sharon. “He sounded pretty good yesterday.”
Salas frowned. “We’d better warn him that Senor Diego is getting almost hostile.”
Wallace rolled his eyes. “But he’s the one who invited us, made a big deal about here being our president’s first foreign visit. What got into him?”
“Poll numbers,” Bertonetti said, smiling. “His are down and our boss’s are up. The crowd is looking forward to the visit, but they’re not so happy with Diego.”
“I’ll call the boss,” sighed Sharon. “I was afraid this was going to happen.”
Mark was not thrilled with the news but was glad to be forewarned. Fortunately, the next day, Air Force One landed precisely on time at Mexico City International. Unfortunately, Mexican President Antonio Diego y Calderon arrived twenty minutes late. Mark stayed on the plane while waiting for Diego’s arrival. As the limo pulled up, Sharon called Mark. President Diego got out of the car to applause and the door to Air Force One opened.
Mark came down the portable stairs with his phone to his ear. The two presidents met halfway down the red carpet and Mark pocketed his phone. Diego, a tall man with a square face, dark black hair and slender build, grasped Mark’s hand.
“I’m glad you got here in good time,” Diego said, his smile not hiding the malice in his eyes. “I’m sorry I could not be here when you arrived. Pressing matters, you understand.”
“No problem,” Mark replied with a jovial smile. “It gave me an extra twenty minutes to get some work done.”
Diego went straight to his podium and began his welcome speech in Spanish. But no Mexican translator appeared to do the translation for the Americans. Sharon translated for Mark, nodding at Bertonetti, who smiled back. He was recording the speech. As soon as Diego was done, Mark stepped to his podium and pulled a folded sheet of paper from his coat pocket. He glanced at Sharon and she nodded. Smiling, he addressed the Mexican people in Spanish, as well.
Things didn’t get any better after lunch at the Mexican Presidential Palace. The first of several talks over the next two days began frostily. First Diego would make an impossible demand, Mark would politely refuse, Diego would counter with a greater demand and accuse Mark of not seeing reason, then Mark would counter that Diego was being difficult and on it went. By the time the first round was over and Mark and his party were back at the American Embassy, the silence was leaden.
The debriefing meeting at the Embassy was no less awkward, with everyone avoiding the real issue. Until Mark finally dismissed everyone so that they could get ready for the state dinner that night. Sharon remained behind in the conference room.
“If I may, sir?” she asked frostily, standing at one end of the table.
Mark nodded. “You’re not happy.”
“And you are?” Sharon took a deep breath. “Permission to speak frankly?”
Mark winced. “Granted.”
“Obviously, the jerk was baiting you. You didn’t have to fall for it.” Sharon’s nails rattled on the table.
“And what was I supposed to do?” Mark growled, turning away from her. “Cave in to all of his demands?”
“The same thing you do when you deal with the same BS behavior from the opposition back home. Seriously, sir. You know how to handle schmucks like that. I’ve seen you do it.”
“There are still protocols.” Mark started pacing.
“Oh. So the correct response to him being a jerk is to be a bigger jerk?” Sharon folded her arms and glared at him. “You’re playing right into his insecure, pathetic hands. You know better than that. We went over this possibility. What happened?”
“I don’t know.” Mark all but folded into himself, leaning his seat against the table.
Sharon softened a little. “Are you saying first foreign trip nerves got to you?”
“No! Yeah. No.” Mark looked away. “Maybe.”
“Oh.” Sharon shrugged. “Okay. I can see that happening. Good thing we’ve got another round of talks tomorrow. You got through the first one mostly unscathed. You’ll be fine.”
“Maybe,” Mark muttered.
But Sharon had heard. “Why won’t you be?”
Mark took a deep breath. “’Cause the guy really pisses me off.”
“Fine. What buttons is he pushing and how do we deal with it?”
Mark cursed under his breath. “It’s nothing you can deal with.”
“I thought that’s why I was here.” Sharon glared at him.
“No.” Mark shook his head and looked up at her. He debated trying to come up with another excuse, but not only did he get the strong feeling that Sharon wouldn’t buy it, it could prove disastrous the next day. “He was ogling you, okay?”
“That’s what set you off?” Sharon threw her arms up. “He was ogling me? That’s his being an ass. That doesn’t mean you have to respond like a bison in rut.”
Mark closed his eyes. “I know. Believe me, I know. It just caught me off guard, okay?”
“You know, I’m a big girl. I’ve handled sexist jerks like him before. Even heads of state, by the way.” Sharon began pacing.
“I know. Like I said, it just caught me off guard. Maybe it was because he was being such a jackass. And to see him leering at you.” Mark shook his head as if he were trying to shake away the vision. “It got under my skin. I don’t know why. It just did.”
“Well, get used to it. I’ve been ogled before, I’ll get ogled again. Some old men are just like that and I’ve been dealing with it all my adult life.”
“I don’t have to like it.”
“No. But you do have to keep your head.” Sharon stopped pacing and glared at him again.
“Yeah,” said Mark softly. “Point taken.” He looked up. “You’d better get ready for the dinner.”
Sharon smiled softly. “You going to be okay?”
He nodded. “Yep.” He sighed. “And, uh, thanks for not letting me get away with it.”
“I serve at the pleasure of the president.”
“That you do. You may go.”
Sharon didn’t go directly to her room to get dressed, but made a few phone calls and used the Embassy computer room to check her email. So it was some time later that she came across Wallace in the hall.
“I just met with the president,” he said. He looked at her. “What did you say to him?”
“Oh, nothing much,” Sharon answered.
“He looked like you’d just ripped him a new one.” Wallace frowned.
Sharon looked a little abashed. “I guess I did.”
Sharon sighed. “It’s what I get paid for. Anyway, I don’t think we’ll get a repeat performance, but Diego does get under his skin a little. I let Secretary Friedman know and we’ll have to map out a new strategy if Diego gets to the boss again.”
Wallace frowned. “But what happened?”
Sharon blushed. “Something totally unexpected.”
“Oh, crap.” Wallace rolled his eyes. “It was Diego leering at you, wasn’t it? I thought the boss looked torqued.”
“I’ll take care of it,” Sharon said.
But her opportunity didn’t come in the way she’d anticipated. She went ahead and wore the powder blue chiffon gown that June had made the month before. It was a simple, strapless dress with a wide gold belt and a straight skirt that flared into multiple layers of gauzy blues just below her knees. She wore a simple gold collar necklace, with her hair up to show off the matching drop earrings.
Senor Diego did not leave off his leering as he and Mark met for the presentation and receiving line in the grand foyer of the palace. The room was huge, paneled in white marble and decked out in gilt rococo trims, moldings, and wainscoting. A huge crystal and gold chandelier flickered above, while gilt sconces held more conventional electric lights with crystal shades.
Mark walked alongside Senor Diego into the foyer. Sharon was supposed to have been a step or so behind Mark as his translator, but Senor Montoya, looking apologetic, pushed Sharon into place next to Senora Diego – as if Sharon were Mark’s wife, or at the very least, date. There was no time to correct the placements.
Mark managed well enough in the receiving line. But in the dining room – featuring more of the same décor with wood paneling and dark wood chairs with glittering seat cushions – Sharon got assigned the proper space for a spouse or date: next to Senor Diego, who sat at the head of a very long table that ran the length of the room. Mark was placed next to Senora Diego, who sat at the other end.
The menu was extravagant, beginning with fresh caviar and cream on toast and meandering through a host of traditionally French dishes, such as cream of mushroom soup, and more Mexican specialties, such as a tuna ceviche with tequila.
During the ceviche, Sharon felt something rub her leg. Discreetly, she reached under the table to push it away but caught the fine wool of the pants worn by the man sitting at the head of the table.
“That tablecloth seems to be tickling me,” she announced in Spanish, reaching under and pushing Diego’s leg away firmly.
The leg was back during the main course – a tasty but not terribly interesting roast beef.
“There’s that tickling again.” Sharon announced. “Tablecloths can be so funny, can’t they?”
The salad was served last and Sharon had barely gotten a bite when she felt Diego’s hand on her knee, made all the more annoying since he had been mostly ignoring her throughout the dinner.
Sharon let out a little yelp. “Oh, dear, Mr. President! I think you’ve got a hold of my knee.” She laughed and looked at the other guests, smiling. “I work out so much, it must feel like wood.”
Glaring at her, Diego withdrew his hand.
The meal adjourned to another gilded room for dessert and coffee, and Diego ostentatiously avoided Sharon and Mark, who ostentatiously made a point of leaving the very second it was polite to do so.
Mark did wait just long enough to catch Diego privately.
“Que quieres?” Diego asked, innocently.
“Enough with the games,” Mark growled into the Mexican president’s ear. “I know you speak English as well as any American does. So hear me now. I get that you want to look tough for your voters – that doesn’t bother me. But you will treat my staff members with respect. Especially Ms. Wheatly, who is an important, trusted member of my staff. Comprendes?”
“She embarrassed me,” Diego grumbled.
“And you copped a feel.”
The two men glared at each other, but Diego broke first with a casual shrug.
“Okay,” he said.
Mark nodded. A moment later, the two men were smiling for the cameras.
Back at the embassy, Mark found Sharon in the embassy’s gardens. The night was balmy, with a soft breeze throwing the scent from the dozens of rose bushes in bloom into the air. Twinkling lights from Mexico City’s downtown towers hovered over the ornate Georgian-style building.
Sharon hadn’t changed but had taken her hair down. She leaned back on the cement bench in front of an orange tree, stretching and shaking her head, unaware that Mark was watching. He smiled and waited until she was upright and had opened her eyes.
“Oh,” she said and began to scramble to her feet.
“Sit. Sit.” Mark ambled over and indicated the space next to her. “May I?”
“Yes, of course.” Sharon slid over a little so Mark didn’t have to sit on top of her.
“Good job today,” he said, rolling his shoulders back to loosen the knots.
“Thank you, sir.”
“And a really good job tonight.” Mark sighed.
Sharon rolled her eyes. “What a creep. He’d been playing footsie all night. You’d think he could take a hint.”
“Well, my sympathies. I, uh, spoke to him.”
“I thought so.”
“I had to.” Mark glared at the walkway. “I can’t have him treating my staff with that kind of disrespect.”
“You’re probably right.” Sharon smiled softly. “Wallace was having a conniption, though.”
“I know. I talked to him. I told him flat out that you have a right to set boundaries. Diego was clearly out of line and you were more polite than I ever would have been.” Mark took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Even Wallace agreed that I can’t let Diego get away with that crap.”
“Are you willing to walk out of the talks if he tries again?” Sharon asked.
“If I don’t deck him, first.” Mark laughed at the look on Sharon’s face. “I’m not going to touch him. You were right. I can’t let him push my buttons. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to let him bully me. Or play footsies with my staff.”
Sharon sighed. “You don’t have to defend me.”
“I know. You certainly proved that tonight.” Mark smiled softly at her. “This isn’t about you.”
“Good.” Sharon smiled back. “It can’t be, you know.”
“Wallace thought so for a while until I set him straight.” Mark paused. “It was about you this afternoon.”
“I know. That was part of the problem.”
“It took a lot of guts to come after me like that.”
Sharon snorted. “That was easy. Almost too easy.”
“Maybe. But it is what I pay you for.”
“That’s what I told Wallace. Shocked the hell out of him.” Sharon shuddered. “I was kind of afraid you were really mad at me.”
“I was. But you were right and I appreciate that you took me on. No one else was going to.” Mark shifted and gazed, unseeing, at the garden. “You know, Senora Diego kept talking about how beautiful you were and asking me why I wasn’t dating you. And all I could think about was you yelling at me and insisting that I get a grip and all.”
“Oh, no,” Sharon groaned.
“Nah. It was a good thing. Because it just suddenly hit me that I’m not all hung up on your looks anymore. I don’t know that I ever was.” He looked at her. “It just seems like now I’m more focused on you as a person.”
“Well, I guess the attraction was bound to fade sooner or later.” Sharon smiled, but there was a catch in her throat.
“I didn’t say that.” Mark looked at her again, saw her gazing back and looked away. “It’s just different is all.”
Sharon swallowed as she stared at the garden path. “Good.” She took a deep breath. “But perhaps I’d better head back in. We want to stay professional and all, right?”
“Yeah. Right. Please feel free.”
“Thank you, sir.” Sharon got up.
“You’re welcome. See you in the morning.”
At the house in Orange County, Sarah Wheatly heard the car pull up into the driveway. It took some minutes before the front door opened. Soft curses accompanied the sound of rubber wheels squeaking on tiles and the door shut with an audible thud. Sarah wandered into the front hall.
“What are you still doing here?” Susan demanded, struggling to get her wheelchair going in the right direction.
Sarah leaned back against the doorway into the family room. “Waiting for you.”
“I meant why aren’t you back at Yale?”
Sarah shrugged. “I’ve got independent study this semester. Where’ve you been?”
Susan glared. “Out.”
“Not that it’s any of your business.” Susan sat back in her chair with her arms folded. “But, yeah. I got laid. So?”
“You tell me,” Sarah said.
“What kind of horse manure is that?” Susan growled. “And since when is it your job to make an issue of my sex life?”
“Since you started sleeping around to prove something.” Sarah folded her arms and glared right back at her sister.
“Oh, like I’ve been some sort of saint all my life.”
Sarah snorted. “Trust me. Nobody’s saying that. But you weren’t loose, either. And you were a lot happier about your sex life before you started this.”
“I was a lot happier about a lot of things before I became a crip.” Susan defiantly pushed her chair toward the stairs.
“That doesn’t mean you have to sleep around,” Sarah snapped. “It’s like you’re trying to prove you’re still a woman or something.”
Susan turned on her. “Or maybe I just want a part of my old life back. Did that ever occur to you? I can’t dance, but I sure can still screw.”
“A lot of good that’s doing you. You’re not even having any fun. You just come home night after night, bitter and bitchy. Maman and Dad are getting pretty worried, and frankly, so am I.”
Susan pushed her chair onto the stair lift. “Well, get over it. I have to. Good night.”
The chair lift whined. Sarah debated pursuing her sister up the stairs, but decided it was pointless. The counselor had said this might happen. There was only so much the family could do. Susan would have to work the rest out herself.
Niecy: Hey, Share – how was the trip?
LadyCarla: Yeah. Any romance with the hot boss?
ChmpionGrl: ARRRGH! The trip sucked and the boss got torqued over President Diego’s sleaze act. Nor do I want any romance.
LadyCarla: Like we believe that.
ChmpionGrl: It doesn’t matter what you believe. He doesn’t want it any more than I do. And after the way I took him down a couple pegs for getting torqued, it is so not happening.
Niecy: Keep trying to convince us, Share. It’s most amusing.
ChmpionGrl: You guys are worse than my stupid brother.
Niecy: No, we’re not. We don’t write top ten hits about your love life.
ChmpionGrl: Oh, lord. The release is coming up, isn’t it? I just hope no one at work catches on.
LadyCarla: They won’t. White House wonks have no clue about popular culture. I’ve dated enough to know.
ChmpionGrl: Except my boss knows to keep an eye on it. Looks like I’ll have to talk to
Karen about it. Catch you ladies later.